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Miscasting Identity: Context as Cause

A circular process connecting accident and law, particulars and forces. With an emphasis on process, on errance (errantry, wandering) at the risk of getting lost.[1]

One of the frustrating things about academic writing is the categories set by the institution. These categories slice through histories to abstract people, epochs, and bodies of knowledge from their context and settle them deep into the belly of the institution to be studied as phenomena without cause or provenance. The dissecting principle derives from processes, as Walter Hunter writes, that often appear “as a kind of placeholder for what seems to be ungraspable in the concrete” and “encode an unmanageable historical time,” such as colonialism, imperialism, or neoliberalism. The relationship between these dominant temporal regimes and the text at hand is buried in a spider web of causes and consequences. The research methodology encouraged by the institution, if not in explicit terms, obscures the alliance between literary studies and history. Edward Said’s indictment minces no words in this regard: “Textuality has therefore become the exact antithesis and displacement of what might be called history.”[2] The researcher would do well adopt a similarly ahistorical approach to their position as a subject of the institution. The ideal subject, both ways, is one without a history.

These institutional categories are so deeply entrenched that they cause certain texts to be studied in certain ways. A reparational mode, widespread in the academy, employs context but in the narrowest, often prejudicial, sense. A particular feature, say identity (racial and/or national) is marked as the primary, and at times singular, criteria for analyses. The dogmatic division principle perceives geographical origin, racial class, religious identity, or the space-time of the life of the writer as a direct source of the text’s ontology. The text begets an arbitrary classification, and the classification is identified as cause for the text’s constitution. Stray too far out of the continent, era, or an identity group, and the canon police, much like border authorities, will reprimand you for asking the wrong questions in the wrong era of the wrong people.

Quite early in the thesis years, I started to think my research subjects were paying a price for my subject position. My initial project was a comparative study of Edmond Jabès, Vivek Narayanan, and Erin Mouré alongside a couple of Indian and French critical theorists. The inquiry was formulated against periodization and canon laws—it took neither classification seriously nor made a point of it. At the end of the first year, I submitted a chapter on Narayanan and a plan for the thesis tracing a thread through these writers/thinkers. During the first-year viva voce examination, I was asked to explain not using a “postcolonial framework” to read Narayanan. The question seemed to test my facility with academic euphemisms. I took the hint, passed the test: if I was not going to discuss Narayanan as a “racialised subject” in a comparative study with other white poets/critics, if I was not going to keep him “at an arm’s length like a colonial curiosity,” was he not better off filed under postcolonialism?[3] The particular bent of BAME politics in the British Isles was only just making itself clear to me. This was not a rap on the knuckle for a post-identity take, but one for not using race as a contrasting tool. Race was a singularity—a divergence that conferred meaning—or it belonged in another branch of English studies where there were no diversity gains to be had. A reductive critique of my project notwithstanding, my examiners had misunderstood postcolonialism. They were using the term synonymously with a racial/national category and a postcolonial framework, if applied to Narayanan, would necessitate a discussion of caste, not race, especially not my race. My argument was not lacking in analyses of identity; it simply did not mistake context for cause. The second examiner continued, given my “cultural background,” could I not limit my scope to postcolonial studies and postcolonial poets? How dare I read poets beyond my postcode? I asked him if he felt that I did not have the ability (the right) to read other writers? I have enough French I said, offering him a way out of disgrace. He wondered if by arguing against essentialism, I was not, after all, trying to “mask” my “postcolonial identity.” Soon after he declared that I had to rewrite the chapter from a “postcolonial” perspective, he commiserated as he sat on an ornamental Oxbridge chair “I sympathize with the melancholy of your position.” I rewrote the chapter, passed my review (not without further admonitions), deleted all of it and started writing a thesis on Jabès.

Edmond Jabès was resistant to the sentimentality of closures and arrivals. His was a high-wire act of cadenced wandering against the fuzziness of homecoming. He harbored a Keatsian capability for uncertainties and a suspicion of totalities from nationalism to meaning-making. As critical responses go, thinking about the process of reading and writing about Jabès seems more natural than submitting a monograph to the job market.

Photograph of Edmond Jabès
Photograph of Edmond Jabès. Courtesy of Bracha L. Ettinger and Wikimedia Commons.  

My initial instinct was to think about Jabès in terms of gestures and signs. But what is a gesture in poetics? And I do not mean poetic gestures. Does it have layers, internal and external, or physical and metaphorical? Is the blank page a gesture or the absence of one? Is the written word a gesture made or representative of one? “It is as if Jabès piled image upon image to exorcise it. If everything is like something else, no one similarity means anything. We are left with the gesture of analogy rather than one specific analogy,” writes Rosmarie Waldrop in her book-length meditation, Lavish Absence, on the process of translating Jabès.[4] She suggests that commentary, metaphor, questions, the central conceits of the Jabèsian form, follow a similar pattern. He heaps question upon question, commentary upon commentary, metaphor upon metaphor until all that remains is “pure gesture.” For Waldrop, this repeat gesture (of not something else but of itself) betrays the limits of signification. Consider this fable-like passage:

Childhood is a piece of ground bathed in water, with little paper boats floating on it. Sometime, the boats turn into scorpions. Then life dies, poisoned, from one moment to the next.

The poison is in each corolla, as the earth is in the sun. At night, the earth is left to itself, but, happily, people are asleep. In their sleep, they are invulnerable.

The poison is the dream. (Quoted in Waldrop, Lavish, 86)

As Waldrop notes, in the first paragraph toys turn into poison, and in the second paragraph, the poison is in the flower and likened to the earth in the sun. There is now a parallel between the poison and the earth whereas in the first paragraph a piece of earth was a metaphor for childhood. The relation between poison and earth is diametrically opposed between these paragraphs. She observes: “Not only do the images range from toy to animal to plant to geology, but their logical relation changes. The metaphors cannot be organized into a system where their elements would always correspond to the same concepts” (86). But semiotic precarity in Jabès is not just a language game; it is reflective of a more fundamental precarity. He was a stranger in Egypt, an exile in France, an unbelieving Jew and identified as French in strictly linguistic terms. For him, conceptions of “home,” “exile,” or “return” were experiences of drifting signification.

To be the excluded subject of a universal axiom—to be the anomaly—is distressing at best and catastrophic at worst. Those in the margins, the minoritized and the segregated have, in some sense, the most comprehensive understanding of the norm. As Aamir Mufti writes of Said’s clear-eyed view of the universal-particular binary “it is precisely universalist categories that require its [the particular] existence as the site of the local.”[5] The universal is dependent on the existence of the particular for its survival as a category, and it is precisely for this reason that the particular is the sharpest vantage point from which to dismantle the universal. Jabès’s unsettling encounter with the universal, as an exclusion, compels him to unsettle these categories. He lets them err and digress as he “wanders in the desert of signs.”[6] Repeat any word multiple times and it disintegrates, growing stranger with every repetition. Jabès’s maneuver is comparable in that he subjects these categories—home, exile or origin—to a barrage of “pure gestures” that dissolve their conceptual coagulation. Unmoored from their structural anchors, these words lose their conceptual legitimacy.

An appropriate critical response to a profusion of gestures splintering and disrupting signification, it seemed to me, should simulate this persuasive movement. However, a reciprocal gesture that merely affirms the experiments of the text risks closing the breaches the text initiates. My argument would have to replicate without repetition; perform a likeness or an affinity without becoming a stale copy.

The displaced categories and concepts in Jabès are not, after all, mere abstractions. They thrive and grow ever more arable through the political, and the structural. An argument constructed on the basis of Jabès’s probing of his Jewish identity, cultural inheritance, and exile in relation to the Jewish persecution in the twentieth century would work just as well—but this approach would risk, as I said earlier, a closure. Jabès gestured at ideological intransigence with metaphors, commentaries, and questions. An explication of his textuality as a response to historical circumstance—a Jewish writer after the Holocaust—would foreclose his interference, bring it to an academic cul-de-sac.

To briefly return to context, the extent of my indifference to the legacy of New Criticism is only matched by my aversion to its remedy: a misreading of context as cause. The supposed corrective mechanism frequently blunts the precision of the excluded standpoint by reading minority writers as restricted to their structural disadvantage. I did not want to read Jabès strictly, or at least not exclusively, in relation to the Holocaust. The literary text is not the product of a singular event or an identity; it harbors difficult questions rather than easy resolutions.

As Jabès was being forced out of Egypt, the Second World War had just ended; Europe, and indeed the world, was yet coming to terms with the Holocaust; liberation struggles and anticolonial movements in the Third World were realizing their objectives just as the State of Israel was declared in Palestine. If Jabès was the excluded, and the marginalized of the European universal, in 1948, the newly formed State of Israel displaced over 700,000 Palestinians. “The meaning of the Palestinian experience is indeed inseparable from the fact that the immediate oppressor is the Jewish state, and not a classic imperial power such as France or Britain. But the crisis here is precisely that this is liberalism at its best. In its support for the rights of the Jews of Europe—that is, in its most inclusive and universalist moment—liberalism trips on its own categories and can conceive of nothing but a colonial solution,” writes Mufti (“Auerbach,” 123). The categories had undeniably shifted: the Jewish context in 1957, when Jabès fled Egypt, was the Holocaust and the new settler colonial state.

A twin movement between the text and the historical context was becoming apparent: while the Jabèsian gestures were in dispute with signification—challenging the continuity between language and representation, practicing a kind of semiotic skepticism—declaration of statehood revised the meanings of exile, homeland, and return. A physical “return” of the Jews to the now manifest “promised land” altered the status of these words from narrative tropes to historical events. A mythical, liminal “elsewhere” had metamorphosed into a nation-state with militarized borders. The exiles had returned two thousand years later, traversing a route that transposed imagination with memory. As Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi so eloquently writes: “what is ‘remembered’ is of course also imagined, as mimesis takes on the authority and license of memory and memory becomes an article of faith.”[7]

The process of statehood narrowed the categorical limits defined through figurative language: the distinctions between the true, the false, and the fictive (to borrow from Carlo Ginzburg) is, in part, understood and concretized through language. A violent reduction of all that is figural—the conceits of the Bible—into material literalities proved catastrophic. This historical context and the particular hermeneutic legacy of statehood has implications, I believe, for the study of Jabèsian textuality. In some sense, his process is at odds with the concretizing mechanisms of the state. He repatriates the allegories and the metaphors to the realm of the figural; he declares the text as the literal site of the land. I have tried to replicate his gestural vigor (both in form and in its refusal of resolutions) and argue towards rupture and against closure (of statehood and language). But, as Jabès knows only too well, to inscribe is to fail; all writing is evidence of the failure to decipher the unyielding word/world.


[1] Gabriel Bounoure and Gérard Macé, Edmond Jabès: la demeure et le livre (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1984), 53.

[2] Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 3.

[3] Sandeep Parmar, “Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK,” LA Review of Books (2015).

[4] Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 83.

[5] Aamir R. Mufti, “Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture,” Critical Inquiry, 25.1 (1998), 95-125, 121.

[6] Daniel Lançon, Jabès, l'Égyptien (Jean-Michel Place Edition, 1998), 276.

[7] Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 7.